Specifically, the study found that people with a happy spouse were about a third more likely to report being in overall good health, including having fewer physical impairments, than their peers with an unhappy spouse. The people with happy partners were also more likely to say they were physically active.
“This finding significantly broadens assumptions about the relationship between happiness and health, suggesting a unique social link,” said William Chopik, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, in a released statement. “Simply having a happy partner may enhance health as much as striving to be happy oneself.”
Filling a gap
As background information in the study points out, previous research has (not unsurprisingly) found a strong association between happiness and physical health.
Research has shown that happy people are “more likely to exercise, actively monitor their weight, exert high energy on routine tasks, seek stimulating leisure, and engage in other health-beneficial behaviors compared with unhappy people,” write Chopik and his co-author, Ed O’Brien, a behavioral scientist at the University of Chicago.
But that earlier research has largely overlooked the influence of romantic partners’ emotional and physical well-being on happiness and health, they add.
The current study set out to fill that knowledge gap.
A better predictor
For the study, Chopik and Ed O’Brien analyzed data on happiness and physical health collected periodically between 2006 and 2012 from a nationally represented sample of 1,981 heterosexual couples participating in the large, ongoing Health and Retirement Study. The information was obtained through questionnaires and face-to-face interviews.
The participants ranged in age from 50 to 94. Most (84 percent) were white, and almost half (47 percent) had finished at least some college. The study does not provide data on the participants’ socioeconomic status.
The analysis revealed that the happiness of a person’s spouse was a strong predictor of better self-health, no matter what the person’s own level of happiness. People with a happy spouse were 34 percent more likely to say they were in overall good health, even after adjusting for age and education.
The findings were similar for both men and women.
“The current study demonstrates that happy partners seem to substitute as proxies for a happy self,” write Chopik and O’Brien. The researchers offer three possible reasons for why this may be so:
Happy partners likely provide stronger social support for the self, such as being willing, available, and able to provide caretaking, as compared with unhappy partners who are more likely to be focus on their own stressors.
Happy partners may get unhappy people involved with activities and contexts that promote health, such as maintaining regular sleep cycles and stocking balanced foods in the household, as compared with unhappy partners who are more likely to construct erratic, unplanned environments.
Being surrounded by a happy partner should make a person’s life easier even if not explicitly happier. Simply knowing that one’s partner is satisfied with his or her individual circumstances may temper a person’s need to seek self-destructive outlets such as binge drinking or drug abuse, and may more generally offer contentment in ways that afford health benefits down the road.
Not the final word
This study has several important limitations. Most notably, it shows only a correlation, not a definitive cause-and-effect, between a spouse’s happiness and one’s health. Other factors, not identified in the study, might explain the results.
Furthermore, the study relies on self-reports of happiness and measures of health. Such reports can be unreliable. Also, the study involved only middle-aged and older couples. Whether the effects uncovered by the study are applicable to younger couples is unknown.
It’s also unknown if these findings would extend to other relationships — say with friends, non-spousal family members and even co-workers.
“Although many fruitful questions remain, the current results make important initial advances in understanding how happiness and health could interact in other ways beyond the self,” write Chopik and O’Brien. “The presence of one person’s sickness may be subtle indicated by the absent smile of another.”